Chris Ramakka had his camouflage backpack snuggled firmly on a chair beside the scorers’ table as he kept full focus on the emotional volleyball match taking place right in front of his eyes.
Ramakka, a Yorktown, Virginia, resident, sat alongside his teammates from the United States Air Force at COBO Center in Detroit during the USA Volleyball Open National Championships, spending a portion of Memorial Day participating in a sport that’s recently become a major part of his life since returning home.
In sitting volleyball, which debuted in the Paralympic Games in 1976 in Toronto, players are required to have their backside making contact with the floor whenever they’re hitting the ball. The modification to the already popular international sport has allowed disabled individuals like Ramakka to compete against one another in a quest for glory.
Losing his leg during a tour in Afghanistan back in 2005 has left the 39-year-old Ramakka wearing a prosthetic leg. Wanting a way to continue staying in shape, Ramakka found a solution by spiking a ball over a three-foot net.
“I got a desk and I kinda started fattening up and I needed something to re-motivate myself,” Ramakka said on Monday. “Sitting volleyball has really started to get me back on track and everything.”
The competition in Detroit, however, wasn’t limited to disabled athletes, as groups of robust competitors got together in order to increase exposure for the growing sport.
|Olympian Kevin Barnett (No. 14) teamed up with Paralympians, including Katie Holloway, to compete in the sitting volleyball division at the USA Volleyball Open National Championships|
One person who stood out amongst the crowd was Kevin Barnett, a member of the 2000 and 2004 U.S. Olympic men’s volleyball teams, and current broadcaster for the Pac-12 Network.
Barnett, who represented team Net Live that included a few Paralympians, had nothing but good things to say about the finished product in Detroit. His experience in sitting volleyball dates back to 1998, when he began playing demonstration games. Now, 17 years later, the degree of popularity for the game has soared to new heights from Barnett’s point of view.
“It’s definitely grown,” Barnett said. “The national team back in 1998 was just getting started. There really weren’t any volleyball players and now, especially from the women’s side, most of the women have had some touch of volleyball before they end up on the sitting team. Men’s side not as much, but certainly the level has grown.”
Battling with cancer at the age of 17 and later open knee surgeries, Travis Ricks of Team USA decided to amputate his leg. It took more than a couple of months to finally get used to living his life on a normal day-to-day basis with a prosthetic leg.
As a former wrestler and volleyball player during his high school career, the San Diego native first successfully got back into sports when he joined a nonprofit organization that helps athletes with disabilities.
Ricks’ first attempt in becoming a Paralympian was back in 2008, when he competed in track and field. But it wasn’t until he walked into a gym that had sitting volleyball going on that he truly found his new calling as an athlete.
His experience playing volleyball as a teenager gave him the motivation to try the sport sitting down.
“I wasn’t scheduled to jump in, I didn’t know anything about it,” Ricks said. “I ended up on a team with the national coach and we took first place. And it was a lot of fun. They invited me back the following year to the development camp; must have done something right because they invited me to train with the national team.”
During his rehab process following a freak boating accident 10 years ago that resulted in him losing a leg, Dan Regan of Team Florida incorporated many sports into his workout routine. It was sitting volleyball, though, that he gravitated towards after being introduced to the idea.
Training with the national team for five days a week in Oklahoma, getting up every morning to practice two or three hours a day, Regan says that he has to love sitting volleyball in order to put that much commitment in it.
Since 2006, when Regan first started, the creation of a development team and events like the one in Detroit have elevated the attention for the sport. And allowing able-bodied people to compete alongside those with disabilities gives the sport a growing interest.
“The reason this tournament is so important is because it shows the United States and volleyball fans that Olympians and Paralympians live in the same world, we all compete for Team USA,” Katie Holloway, a two-time Paralympic Games silver medalist with the U.S. women’s sitting volleyball team said. “Paralympians just compete in a different way.”
Zach Libby is a journalism major at Central Michigan University who writes for the Detroit Free Press and interns at Michigan Hockey Magazine. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.